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Stress: You’re Doing it Wrong

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what stress is. In fact, given how often we experience it, you’d think we would all be stress experts by now. In reality, most of our experience with stress has to do with managing the symptoms (e.g. by getting a massage), as opposed to managing the stress itself-- and massages are expensive, which can add to your stress! To prevent, treat, and even channel your stress, the first step is broadening your understanding of how stress works. 

How Stress Works: The Bad News & The Good News

You are running late to a meeting, and the traffic light turns red. Before your brain can even register, “I’m experiencing stress right now,” your body is already working overtime. The first step your body takes is secreting adrenaline, a hormone that signals the rest of the body to brace itself for either fight or flight. This means increasing your heart and breathing rate, making your muscles contract, and increasing your general physiological preparedness.

The stress response is an ancient adaptation, essential to the survival of humans and animals alike. But now that humans no longer inhabit the same kinds of environments we evolved in (even if you or your partner spend hours in the “man-cave”), and because we evolved the unique cognitive capacity to predict into the distant future, our stress responses are often miscalibrated to what is actually happening.

Here we are, hundreds of thousands of years later, with the same tool -- only our days aren’t spent hunting and gathering. We have more and different things to stress about. Some of our new stressors are inevitable, such as those related to money and relationships, but many can be prevented with stress-management techniques. Indeed, given the costs of an overactive stress-response, we should take whatever steps we can to keep stress under control. 

The stress response evolved for brief, high-threat situations; it wasn’t designed to be left on frequently and for long periods of time.Your body needs to spend a significant amount of time in a resting and relaxed state to function properly.

In the short-term, too much stress and too little rest can result in a variety of symptoms: lack of sexual desire, over-eating, headaches, muscle tension, drug and alcohol use, frustration, poor concentration, and social isolation. 

When stress becomes a chronic problem, its consequences become much more severe.

Chronic stress has been linked to everything from cardiovascular and autoimmune disease, to premature aging, ulcers, and stroke. In addition to increasing the likelihood of these various conditions, stress can also worsen the course of any conditions that are already present. All of this to say, even if you don’t feel like you have a stress problem now, it’s critical that you learn to manage your stress as well as you can -- before things go wrong.

That was the bad news. Now here’s the good news -- finally! While you’re stuck with your outdated stress response, some stress is not only normal but beneficial. Indeed, a life devoid of stress would be a life without growth or stimulation. Exercise, for example, is a kind of stressor, but it’s also essential to your health. Short-term, manageable stress can also help motivate us and improve our performance, such as during a sports game or a high-pressure test. If you are someone who likes scary movies or roller coasters, you also know that small, voluntary doses of stress can be fun and exhilarating. 

The key element here is the sense of control.

If you perceive the stressor as something over which you have some measure of control, your reaction is unlikely to tip over into harmful territory. Discerning your level of control in a given situation is something you can get better at. The key is to take a realistic but strategic view of the situation your in. Take traffic, a prototypical stressor over which you have little to no control. How can you change your perception or channel your stress more productively? When I’m driving, I either like to channel my stress by directing it toward work calls, or I like to imagine all of the things that might be frustrating the people in the cars around me. I wonder if the guy that just cut me off got fired from work today? I hope the person speeding isn’t rushing to the hospital or about to miss their flight. This takes me out of my own self-centered perspective and brings my stress levels down.

How to Prevent Stress:

One of the best ways to ensure that you are perceiving reality accurately, is to maintain your mental and physical health by “taking your MEDS.” MEDS is an acronym which stands for meditation/medication (if applicable), exercise, diet, and sleep. If you aren’t taking care of your mind and body across these dimensions of self-care, you are going to be more prone to experiencing stress and perceiving stressors. For example, if you haven’t slept well in two days, even an activity that you usually do for fun, like going to the movies, might feel stressful. Imagine you haven’t eaten all day and you and your partner have a disagreement… how much worse will that fight go just because you went into it “hangry”? Alternatively, think about how good it felt to wake up from a deep sleep the day after a challenging workout. 

Why are we taking the time to tell you what you already know? Because we often don’t take this advice seriously. So think of MEDS as “meds,” “doctor’s orders,” a prescription to a stress resistant life-- whatever framing you need to get yourself daily self-care routine running. Thankfully, each of the components of MEDS are interrelated-- so start with whichever is easiest for you to habitualize and go from there. 

Goals are much more likely to be achieved when we start small, are specific, and have a contingency plan. For example, my goal is to start meditating. To achieve my goal I plan to meditate using the Headspace app for 5 minutes a day for the next week. There is no excuse to not be able to find 5 free minutes in my day, so if I were to fail at achieving my goal it would be because I forgot. In anticipation of this I will set three reminders throughout the day, but still aim to meditate at the same time each day as that will make it easier to build a habit around it. If I miss a day or two, that is not failure, I’ll simply begin again. 

So the next time you are feeling stressed, ask yourself did I take my MEDS? If the answer is consistently no for one or all of the components of stress, that is where you want to start to get ahead of your stress. (For more specifics on how to optimize your mental and physical health through MEDS see our Stress Management Course.)

How to Treat Stress: 

“Distance yourself from your thoughts.” Ummmm. Ok. That’s nice Buddha, but what the heck does that mean?! Think about the last time you were disrupted from being wrapped up in a book or a daydream. Whatever the book or the daydream were about, whether they made you feel nostalgic or literally cry, the moment you realized it was all your head, you distanced yourself from your thoughts. Distancing yourself from your thoughts isn’t the same thing as pushing them, or the feelings they evoke, out of your head. The point is not to be numb, or happy, or calm, or not to think. It’s simply to recognize. 

“Oh this is sadness. This it what sadness feels like in my body-- tight chest and heavy limbs.” No longer hostage to the content of those thoughts you have a choice in how you relate to your thoughts and feelings. The more you focus your attention on identifying what you are feeling, and where you feel it in your body, the more likely you are to become calm naturally. Clear, undistracted, nonjudgmental attention to whatever is going on in the present moment-- that is what mediation is about. 

Meditation will help you realize that stress without sustained thoughts is just a sensation and your thoughts dictate what you interpret them to mean-- excitement, danger, arousal, etc. Rather than trying to distract yourself from what is stressing you out, because that never works… “Don’t think about the spider. It can smell your fear. Don’t think about the-- it jumped!” Instead, focus on the feeling of being stressed and when you recognize you have gotten lost in thought again, pause, be proud of yourself for recognizing (that’s almost the whole game), and then being again. 

I know that sounds super zen, but mediation can be a completely secular practice. One science based guided meditation we recommend is this Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) exercise in cognitive defusion called “Leaves on a stream.”

Meditative practices such as the one you just completed (congratulations!) are truly one of your most powerful resources in combating stress because they are: free, available to you anytime and anywhere, and using them is fast, effective, and discrete. The way ACT exercises work are by teaching listeners to: recognize thoughts as they arise, practice non-judgment toward your thoughts and their contents, and familiarize yourself with habit pattern of your mind. Your attention will frequently wonder away from the exercise, you may even fall asleep, (I know I do if I meditate late at night...), but whatever happens don’t stress out-- like the psychologist in the video says, so long as you keep returning to the activity once you’ve recognized you got distracted, you can’t mess up. 

For more helpful insights, prevention and treatment recommendations see our course specifically designed for Stress Management. 

Written by Sophie Wright

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